Ever since it was announced in 2005 that London would be hosting the 2012 Olympics, trade unions have been gearing up to make demands on employers. Mainline train workers and Network Rail staff have already secured a £500 bonus for the extra work they are likely to face, while Tube workers will get £850 each. Bus workers held a one-day strike last week after their demands for a similar bonus were not met.
With huge potential for disruption, employers in sectors associated with the Games - from transport and construction to catering and hospitality - must weigh up whether to allocate staff extra pay or benefits based on their unions' demands or face the consequences of a walk-out during one of the busiest periods their business is ever likely to face.
"The headlines make out that unions such as RMT are using the Olympics as a battering ram to increase pay and get better benefits during this period," says Andy Cook, chief executive of industrial relations specialists Marshall-James, who has been involved in high-profile union negotiations for the likes of Transport for London and Gate Gourmet, the airline caterer. "They seem to be strong-arming employers by threatening disruption. And when the employers give in, it looks like they're rewarding poor behaviour."
Confrontation does not have to be the only route, however. According to Cook, HR can bring some strategic reasoning to the situation. "I advise them to stick to their guns, be clear about what they want to achieve without being overly confrontational," he adds. "In the past, it has been convenient for employers to think 'well, we've got the union to go through so we don't need to bother talking to staff'. This is where industrial relations fester."
Top tips on dealing with unions
- Engage directly with employees. You don't always have to communicate through the union.
- Try not to take anything personally.
- Don't try to affect the union's political agenda; you can do little as an individual organisation to influence their thinking.
- Network with colleagues in similar organisations with similar union representation. What has been demanded of them?
- Be sure of your argument and be prepared to stand your ground without confrontation.
- It might not always be possible to reach a compromise, so don't expect one.
While collective bargaining agreements sometimes get a bad press (as they have with the transport unions), it is possible to use well-drawn-up agreements to avoid industrial disputes before they get to a point where they become detrimental to business. Linda Clarke, professor of industrial relations at Westminster Business School, has looked at the effectiveness of collective bargaining in the construction industry - one of the key sectors involved in making the Olympics a success.
The Major Projects Agreement, for example, was invaluable during another recent high-profile construction project - Heathrow Terminal 5. This was drawn up to focus on effective teamworking, and was done so with the full involvement of the trade unions with the intention of making them a partner - rather than an adversary - in any strategic, organisational and employment decisions.
"Some of the agreements set down during the construction of Terminal 5 have been replicated for the Olympics, and have been considered a success," explains Professor Clarke. Despite some industrial relations issues over safety and a threat of wildcat strikes by electricians working on the Olympics site last year, there has been relatively little disruption in this sector. "Unions in construction have been key in ensuring companies don't rely on self-employed contractors and instead take a longer-term view," she adds.
Some employers are using the once-in-a-generation event as a means to heighten engagement, not just during the few weeks the Olympics are in progress, but also after they have finished. Restaurant chain McDonald's claims it will serve one in 10 meals to Olympic visitors, and also won the contract to recruit and train 70,000 volunteers to help in the Olympic Village. The training these volunteers undertake can be transferred into a City & Guilds-accredited qualification, which they will be able to use to further their career prospects. Other organisations are planning to allow staff to work flexibly during the Games and look at newer, less rigid ways of working, which could have a long-term positive impact on engagement.
Binna Kandola, head of wellbeing at business psychology company Pearn Kandola, believes that even small gestures, such as throwing an Olympics closing ceremony party or paying for a taxi home for staff who put in more hours than usual, build up a mutual trust between managers and staff and allow workers to feel appreciated during this busy time. "Organisations that don't already have a level of trust before the event, where unions feel marginalised by the management or that they're scoring points, should anticipate some level of confrontation," he says. "Where they'll get a real sense of engagement from staff is where they share a sense of purpose. Simple things like saying 'thank you' or recognition of a good job done, showing that support will be available; these things say to employees that their efforts are not taken for granted."
Andy Cook advises employers faced with the prospect of industrial disputes this summer to use it as an opportunity to communicate directly with staff. With only around 25% of the UK workforce unionised, most HR professionals will not be exposed to union negotiations on a daily basis, and it is not a major feature of their training. But this does not mean they should be scared of being honest with employees or standing up to unreasonable demands.
"You have a duty of care to talk directly to staff and not always through unions," he says. "HR's job is to give managers the tools and techniques to work within the framework their organisation requires. Too many organisations make the mistake of making HR the 'guardian' of the union, when their role should be in educating managers." Ultimately, taking a partnership approach with unions or offering staff greater flexibility during this period could prove far more productive, providing a legacy long after the final medals have been awarded.
Professor Linda Clarke has contributed to a book, Human Resources Management in Construction, which has just been published in second edition. (Routledge, £29.99)